Thoreau Essay, Research Paper
Henry David Thoreau On Education
English Comp II
12 April 2000
Henry David Thoreau On Education
Thoreau’s relation to the institution of education has been problematic. He entered the teaching profession early, as an undergraduate, and left it a few years later, when he closed the private school he had conducted with his brother. Although there were external reasons for this action, Thoreau’s departure from teaching also resulted from disillusion with the conventional classroom, a growing sense that it prevented learning rather then fostering it. Despite having undergone a formal education at Harvard University, Thoreau challenged existing teaching standards and sought to implement idealistic educational principles. He emphasized a deep respect for the local and concrete as the basis of all learning, education through experience as intrinsically valuable, and a vision of schooling in which knowledge is as much constructed as it is transmitted. Also, placing focus where it really should be, he increasingly came to feel that “it is strange that men are in such haste to get fame as teachers rather then knowledge as learners” (Allen 217). He spent the rest of his life learning and writing; the two were usually the same for him. He never lost his concern for teaching, both envisioning better ways to go about it and launching a powerful critique of the way it was usually done: “What does education often do! – It makes a strait-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook” (Allen 312).
Because he stands outside the mainstream of educational practice, Thoreau can help us transcend the false oppositions that have arisen between traditionalists and progressives, between advocates of traditional education, and those of openness and creativity. Thoreau envisioned and enacted a necessary synthesis, a working dialectic of thinking and doing, of transmitting old cultural forms and creating new ones, and of democratic schooling and the pursuit of excellence (Hovde 18).
Joseph Krutch, a Thoreau historian details that Thoreau can help us reconcile these self-defeating oppositions because he himself was a doer and a thinker, an innovative teacher, and a speculative writer. Although his career as a classroom teacher ended early, he continued to reflect on the process of education throughout the voluminous writings that recorded and shaped his own low-key but intensely experienced life. He embodied the notion of continuing education and lifelong learning. Thoreau was an advocate for continuing education more fundamentally in the sense that he knew that no that no system is sufficient or permanent, that to be responsively alive is to be a perpetual learner, always aware of both the possibilities and the limits of one’s current knowledge. Thoreau remained a learner of how he learned, keeping in his journal a series of internal reflections. His journal is one of the most thorough and detailed records we have of fruitful insights between world and mind, experiencing and conceptualizing, living and writing (Allen 12).
The fact that Thoreau’s educational philosophy was rooted in his own immediate experience does not mean that this philosophy was eccentric or narrowly personal. Thoreau’s vision of education can best be explained and appreciated by viewing it as part of the “tradition of the active mind” (Hovde 8). The term tradition is somewhat contradictory here, since this flowing together of thinking seeks to free itself from the grip of the past in favor of the immediate act of the mind encountering the world. The active mind trusts its own workings over any previous formulations, whether by itself or others. It has played a vital part in our educational history, although ignored or suppressed by forces Thoreau constantly battled: unthinking routine, institutional inertia, and blind authoritarianism. This anti-traditional tradition view of school as a place where the tensions that plague our existence – body and soul, self and society, emotion and intellect – can be reconciled. The actual embodiments of this view have been on a small scale and short lived. Yet these experiments have kept the possibility of schools as genuine democratic intellectual communities (Hovde 11).
After graduating from Harvard College in the summer of 1837, Thoreau, now twenty, began his shortest and most notorious teaching stint. In that year he was fortunate enough to land a position in his native Concord, as the teacher at the Center School, the main public college prep school. This post was traditionally offered to a recent Harvard graduate, but Thoreau, unlike many of his predecessors, was not just biding his time en route to becoming a lawyer or minister. He fully intended to stay in teaching for several years, “perhaps – after a year of public school experience and self-directed study – taking a position in a private academy” (Krutch 153-54). But during his first few days, Nehemiah Ball visited Thoreau, one of the three members of the school committee. Ball found the activity and the noise level of the classroom too high and instructed the young teacher to use corporal punishment more often. Stung by the criticism, Thoreau applied the ferule (a stick for rapping on the hand rather than a cowhide strip for flogging, which the school did not have) to six students, some chosen at random, some punished for minor infractions. That evening he handed in his resignation (Hovde 14).
Instead of disillusionment with teaching, Thoreau articulates an inspiring vision that he was to apply to the rest of his educational work. This vision is a remarkable characteristic of the values inherent in the tradition of the active mind. Thoreau chooses to see education not simply as a means, a preparation for something else, but as valuable by itself. He asserts a basic succession between the schoolroom and the street, between the process of learning and the rest of experience. He believed that the teacher could learn with and from the student (Krutch 17).
Along with his brother John, Henry opened up a school in Concord. Although the brothers retained most features of conventional schooling, they supplemented these with a number of activities that moved education beyond the classroom walls. There were frequent field trips, and not just to fields for nature study. The students were taken to the offices of a local paper to watch typesetting and to a gunsmith to watch the regulating of gunsights. In the spring, each student had a small plot of plowed land to plant (Krutch 21).
On 1 April 1841, after just three years, the brothers closed their school because of John’s failing health from Tuberculosis. Thoreau was never to be a classroom teacher again. On the positive side, he wanted to devote all his energies to his writing. But on the negative side, he had a deep, underlying suspicion of the whole activity of formal education. In his journal he writes “How vain it is to teach youth, or anybody, truths! They can only learn them after their own fashions, and when they get ready” (Allen 79).
Thoreau’s subsequent involvement with education was primarily as a writer. He did not write a separate single work on the subject, but his insights are found throughout his work, most richly in Walden and in his journals. Thoreau envisions education that does not simply pass on the end results of past cultural creations but that immerses each student in the entire cycle of experiencing, formulating, and then reinstating these formulations back into the experience to test, hone, and modify. And just as crucial as the construction or reconstruction of cultural forms is the continual destruction and transcendence of the restrictive old forms, especially when they are of our own making. In Walden he writes, “Every man has to learn the points of the compass again as often as he wakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction” (171). The entire process of moving out to, and then leaving, Walden Pond, and of writing Walden, embodies the vision that education is never completed, always vibrantly alive to the present circumstances of life.
While Thoreau sees this cycle as at the heart of the educational process, it is in the area of writing, that he writes with the greatest depth. He engaged in this learning activity daily, noting: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” (Allen 262). Thoreau describes the true writer as someone who moves beyond the constriction of language to construct new forms more relevant to the present time, helping us see what the prior forms left out. As Thoreau writes, he illustrates the point “He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them, transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots” (120).
When Thoreau retreats to Walden Pond or takes one of his shorter excursions to wilder places like the Maine woods, it is not to commune mutely with nature but to explore and exploit sources for new language, which is also new knowledge. Some progressive educators make the mistake of thinking it is enough to have experiences, but experiences are educational only if the students actively clarify, internalize, and reflect on them through their own language making. The equal mistake of educational conservatives is to assume that inert bits and pieces of culture committed to memory somehow constitute thinking (Hovde 91).
Thoreau believed that reading and thinking should not be locked away within the mind only. Thoreau said of what he thought a truly good book: “I must lay it down and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading I must finish by acting” (Allen 213). Thoreau also explained that when ideas and circumstances seemed unrealistic we must “put the foundations of reflective action and community-building under them” (Krutch 23).
Henry David Thoreau viewed education as an ongoing process that is necessary to awaken us from abstractions and preconceptions in order to learn and see things in a new light. He emphasized greatly the importance of applying what you learned to actual life, and viewed reading as only a prelude to actual knowledge. This knowledge has to be supplemented with experiences in nature. The newfound knowledge must generate new language through writing; teachers should not only instruct their students but also learn from them. At the conclusion of Walden, Thoreau urged the reader “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them” (323-24).
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Hovde, Carl F., William Howarth, and Elizabeth Hall Witherell, eds. A week on the Concord and Merrymack Rivers. By Henry Thoreau. 1849. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Sanborn, F. B. The Life of Henry David Thoreau.
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